Does democracy explain the absence of leaders?
I wrote about leadership twice for Illinois Issues. The first, from 1995, is here. This piece was the overview piece in an issue devoted to considerations of leadership in its myriad forms, institutional, political and community. Interestingly, I’d been asked to address the same topic in a cover story for one of my big-company business magazines.
Like many Americans in recent years, I have ceased to yearn for strong leaders and begun to fear their emergence.
Ask Amazon.com to list all the books on leadership and there will be 170,000 choices. This suggests that interest in the mystery of leadership is general, and the secret to it has yet to be found. One need read only a few of these books to begin to see why. Leadership does not derive dependably from personality, or belief, or rank. Individuals of both sexes have been leaders, and people of all colors. Black Hawk was the quintessential charismatic leader, as was the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Leadership styles vary, too. President Abraham Lincoln and labor union official John L. Lewis were both strong leaders, but they had little in common beyond a background as Illinoisans, a mastery of rhetoric and a knack for exciting critics to outrage.
The possible permutations of leadership frustrate ambitious attempts at generalization by psychologists, sociologists and the brainier sorts of journalists. The public is even more confused. Any poll on great leaders reveals how widely leadership is confused with popularity, personal courage or association with major events. Similarly, many assume that being a leader and being a winner are the same thing.
It is only in the history books that even a few of the mysteries of leadership can be divined. Such study reveals that many of the popular assumptions about leaders and leadership—most of which are intoned solemnly by the authors of leadership how-tos—are misleading, if not false.
For example, must a leader be wise? Followers like to think so, indeed need to think so. But history is crammed with leaders who were fools, or deluded, or worse. Consider the Illinois Internal Improvements Act fiasco. A mania for canal- and railroad-building swept the General Assembly in the 1830s and buried the young state under debt that took decades to dig out of. That the state of Illinois emerged from the episode with its government and its reputation intact owed mostly to Gov. Thomas Ford. The legislators who approved the bill were no doubt seen at the time, if only by themselves, as great leaders, men who dreamed and dared, the kind of men Illinois needed to carry it forward. But, as Ford would write, "They as men of intelligence . . . ought as well as ourselves, to have foreseen our future want of ability, and the constant catastrophe which our common error has produced."
Nor does a leader need to be popular, meaning she has her followers (workforce, citizenry, congregation) solidly behind her. It is when public opinion is divided that a leader is needed most because division renders popular government immobile. Lincoln during the Civil War never had more than a modest majority of people behind him, and, especially in the months before Ulysses Grant and John Wilkes Booth saved his reputation, had been subject to scathing criticism, even from his friends.
Boldness is often assumed to be a trait of the great leader, but boldness alone is not enough. Dan Walker is only a recent example of an Illinois governor who came to Springfield with a vision—essentially of a politics without politics—that he was unable to realize on behalf of his supporters.
A would-be leader need not possess wisdom or universal support, but he must have power or be able to influence power to his ends; not all people in leadership positions may lead, but only they can lead. The strong leader must appear confident. He must be resolute; it is better to believe strongly in what is mistaken than to demonstrate skepticism, or worse, doubt, in the pursuit of the right course. Above all, a leader must not shrink from the fray. "All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common," wrote economist and social critic John Kenneth Galbraith. "It was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership."
The ability to communicate by word or gesture—whatever the wisdom of the message—is essential to persuade others to accept a leader's purpose. Illinois' Civil War governor, Richard Yates, for example, did a fine job rallying those already committed to the Union cause behind Lincoln's government, but, arguably, the man who showed real leadership in Illinois' Civil War years—not counting the conspicuous contributions of Illinoisans on the battlefield—was John A. Logan. A Murphysboro native, Logan was pro-South before the outbreak of the war.
Such was his influence, Unionists feared that if Logan were to go for the South, much of southern Illinois would follow him. After two months of deliberation, Logan announced for the Union cause with a persuasive speech, and Yates was spared a guerrilla war in his own southern counties.
It is the ardent wish of Americans for leaders who are better than they are. Yet they never forgive one who dares to act like it. The French may cherish arrogance, but in this country modesty—or, more precisely, a lack of pretension—is an essential virtue. Americans have little tolerance for politicians who claim to be holier than thou, and even less for those who make too much of being holier than them—"them" being whomever they are running against.
A good American leader, therefore, does not presume to tell her followers how to think, but she often is obliged to explain to them what they think.
She articulates values that are inchoate, thus making them effective, or proposes a course of action—military, economic, social—that will realize those values. This ability to intuit the inchoate needs of the group is often offered as essential to leadership. Richard J. Daley was a leader of this stripe. He didn't need to ask Chicagoans what they wanted from City Hall because they were the same things he wanted.
We usually think of leaders in terms of political officeholders. This is partly because they can marshal the resources in emergencies, partly because the press pays attention to them and partly because politicians so often pose as leaders. But leaders often hold no office. Ordinary Americans lead their churches, their clubs, their charities, their hometowns to an extent unknown abroad. This is where leadership is really needed because it is in the local community that most of the hard work of maintaining society is done. The housewife who organized the fund drive to rebuild the clinic, the editorial writer who campaigned for a new park, the pastor who, after 20 years, finally convinced the church to admit people of color as a matter of conscience—these are the paragons of democ-racy, and the names of many of them decorate schools and parks and squares in every town in Illinois. The essence of old-style—pre-Internet and pre-TV—grass-roots political organizing involved identifying and cultivating these opinion leaders, meaning the individuals in the Rotary Club and the church circle and the local unions that everyone else in those organizations respect and listen to. Such people are seldom known outside their hometowns, and too often quickly forgotten in them. Soldiers and cops and firefighters have their monuments in the capital city—someone should build a monument to those who gave their lives for the public good in a different way.
Consider the success of the nation's megachurches, of which Willow Creek Community Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago was in many ways the model. They sustain themselves, and their members, through networks of committed believers consisting of tightly knit groups of six or seven who meet in one another's homes during the week to worship and pray. By some measures, at least 40 million Americans take part in a religiously based small group of this type.
Much has been made of the fact that these groups are, at least officially, leaderless. No one gets up and makes speeches, no one sets an agenda that the others must follow. But are they really leaderless? The leadership style is informal, colloquial, consensual, that is true, but leaders there are, and these churches train people to act as such. This is a durable type whose parents were our frontier men and women. They, too, were impatient with, or at least ambivalent about, institutions, structures, process and protocol, and were not just willing but eager to play bishop, or king, in their own little realm. "Every man a leader," Huey Long might have said.
History suggests that leaders often do not become leaders because they are great, but become great by leading, and are great only while leading. From their lives we can deduce that greatness is not inborn, but a gift. A gift from whom? The times, Fate, the stars, the rolled dice. Extraordinary times—eras of social confusion, military peril, economic collapse, disasters—often bring out the best in people, including, occasionally, the people in charge.
The late historian Robert P. Howard concluded that perhaps a dozen of the state's governors showed the wisdom, vision and leadership to turn their administrations into what he called "showpieces of good government."
All had the opportunity to show their stuff because of public crisis. (Pity the governor whose term coincides with social peace and a fat General Fund, however, for he will never be remembered.) The Civil War was one such crisis, but more often the disasters that have brought Illinois low have been fiscal. Gov. Henry Horner managed to fund relief efforts during the Depression by engineering passage of a sales tax, on which the state would rely to pay its bills for three decades. Gov. Richard Ogilvie staked his administration on modernizing the tax structure in a late-20th century Illinois that was crippled by reliance on a revenue system better suited to the 19th.
But it is not enough to be in the right place at the right time. Not every person in charge during a crisis blossoms into a wartime FDR. One has to be the right person in the right place at the right time. As University of Illinois at Chicago history professor Melvin Holli has summarized: "There are situations for leaders, and leaders for situations." Richard J. Daley was mayor of a Chicago in crisis in the summer of 1968 and, by virtually every measure, failed to cope with the demands of that moment.
Perhaps it is more to the point to ask not where are the leaders, but are leaders possible? Leadership is not something one does to other people but with them. The most successful organizations—one thinks of the better business corporations and the U.S. military—are those in which a sense of community binds leaders and followers in a web of mutual responsibility. In most instances, however, the terms of the social compact between leader and led is very much unsettled. This is especially true in politics and government. Of all the overlapping realms that make up Illinois, political leadership is scarcest because it is in this realm that shared values are scarcest. There is little common understanding, not only of issues, but of what government is for, of how and for whom it ought to work.
It is hard to imagine how any leader might mobilize a citizenry that, when asked where the true path lies, points in five different directions. While muddle and stalemate may leave us yearning for a strong hand at the top, muddle and stalemate are not proof of the absence of leaders, but of the presence of democracy. □